May is recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander month, and in honor of the AAPI community The Eric Carle Museum in Amherst has launched a virtual exhibit entitled Asians, Everyday.
The exhibit features selected books and artwork that depict Asian Americans living their everyday lives and highlights the commonalities that we all share while also showcasing positive Asian American representation.
The subject matter hits close to home for author-illustrator and exhibit curator Grace Lin. Lin spoke with Zydalis Bauer about how the recent rise in hate crimes against the Asian community — and a personal experience with her daughter — inspired the exhibit.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: May is recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander Month, and in honor of this, the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst has launched a virtual exhibit entitled “Asians, Everyday.”
The exhibit features selected books and artwork that depict Asian-Americans living their everyday lives and highlights the commonalities that we share, while also showcasing positive Asian-American representation.
It’s a subject that hits close to home for author, illustrator, and exhibit curator Grace Lin, who spoke with me about how the recent rise in hate crimes against the Asian community and a personal experience with her daughter inspired the exhibit.
Grace Lin, Author, Illustrator, & Exhibit Curator: My daughter returned to in-person school after this long time being away during the pandemic. And during her very first week at school, during lunch, a classmate said that they hated Asians. And well, they actually said they hated Chinese people, and that the Chinese started the coronavirus.
And of course, I was very, very upset when I heard this. And I realized that I was in a unique position to hopefully help change minds of young children, and this is one of the ways that I decided to try to do that.
Zydalis Bauer: Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic that started last March, there have been over sixty-six hundred hate incidents against the Asian community, according to StopAAPIHate.org.
In light of that, how important are exhibitions like these and changing that narrative?
Grace Lin: I think it’s very important. One of the reasons why we have so much anti-Asian hate is because the story that has fueled it has portrayed Asians as perpetual foreigners, as others, as people who are going to cause harm.
And I think that we have a real responsibility to change that narrative, to show that there are many Asians who are who are not professional foreigners, but Asians are actually a part of our everyday life.
Zydalis Bauer: So, there are twenty-six books in this exhibit. What was the process in selecting them and why did these speak to you specifically?
Grace Lin: In the past, there’s been an emphasis on showing Asians at Lunar New Year or special occasions. And those are great, but I really wanted to emphasize that Asians are part of mainstream America and how — that Asians we are your friends, we are your families.
We do all the same things that you do and that we are not your enemies. And I felt like choosing books that show contemporary Asian American lives, by Asian American creators, would do a lot to create that narrative.
Zydalis Bauer: You grew up in upstate New York and have mentioned that you were the only Asian in your elementary school class and at the time diversity was approached through a colorblind lens.
How did that approach impact you and the work that you do as an author and illustrator?
Grace Lin: I grew up in upstate New York, where I was continually the only Asian person in my class year after year. And so, while I understood the idea of trying to make kids colorblind the truth is, as the only Asian in the classroom, I never felt colorless.
In fact, I felt like I had this secret that nobody ever talked about. But we all knew, everyone knew I was Asian. But we don’t talk about it because it was that shameful. If anything, it gave me a deeper sense of shame because we never talked about it.
Zydalis Bauer: You’ve been an advocate for diversity and have received many awards for your work as an author and illustrator, including being recognized in 2016 by the Obama Administration as a champion of change for Asian American and Pacific Islander art and storytelling.
When children are able to pick up a book and see that representation of their background, what does that do for them?
Grace Lin: When we talk about children’s books, we talk a lot about windows and mirrors. And we talk about how it’s so important that children are able to see a reflection of themselves in the books that they read, as well as see the world around them.
Unfortunately, for many marginalized children, they are almost always just seeing windows. They are always seeing the world outside of them, and they are very rarely seeing a reflection of themselves. And when that happens over and over again, when you never see a character in a book that looks like you, you start feeling invisible or ashamed of who you are.
So, being able to see yourself in a book, being able to see yourself, someone that looks like you as a hero, that makes you feel like you can be important, you can have agency in your life. So that’s why these kind of books are very important.
But they’re also important for for non Asian kids because it’s very important for them to see the world from another viewpoint. Otherwise, how can we expect people to empathize and care about each other?
Zydalis Bauer: Exactly. And I think that brings me to my next question, because you said a quote in an interview with The Boston Globe that I think a lot of people from different cultural backgrounds can resonate with.
You said “it’s always hard to feel so American on the inside, and yet you realize that so few see you that way because of how you look.”
So how can parents and caregivers and everyone in general, encourage children to explore books about different backgrounds and cultures so that they can see the similarities and also celebrate the differences?
Grace Lin: Well, I think that’s the whole reason why this exhibit is called “Asians Everyday.”
I think here in the United States, we have a bad habit of looking at books about Asians during Lunar New Year. We look about look at books about Black people during Black History Month. And that’s not the way we live. We are Asian every day. People are Black people every day, and we are part of society every day.
So it’s very important that we make sure that we show Asians, we show marginalized people, every day in the books we read, in all the media that we let our kids consume.
Zydalis Bauer: There were times early on in your career when you questioned whether or not you wanted to be considered as a, quote, “multicultural author and illustrator.”
Do you still have those reservations at this point in your career? And what advice do you have for others that may feel boxed in as part of their cultural background?
Grace Lin: People don’t want to be pigeonholed as a multicultural author and illustrator. They feel like that means their books will only appeal to a certain segment of the population, that the publishing industry will only support it so much because it will never be like a bestseller. And also, there’s the other side where they feel that others might look at them and think that they’re only getting published because of their race or their nationality or their ethnicity.
And those are all really hard places to be as a creator. I would encourage any creators who are tempted to shed that, to not take it as a burden, but to take it as a point of pride. It took me quite a while to realize that.
And it took me quite a while to realize what a gift all these burdens were, because they are something that is unique to us, that adds something different and unique to the world. And that is what being creator is about.